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3.8 out of 5 stars
The Story of a Marriage: A Novel
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62 of 70 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
It's relatively rare that I pick up a piece of non-genre contemporary American literature, my tastes just don't generally range that way. However, in this case, the cover caught my eye, and the jacket copy was promising enough to get me started. And once I dipped into the book, Greer's prose was more than enough to keep me reading all the way through. Even though the story is rather sparsely plotted, it brims with tension and intimacy until the very end, and I highly recommend it to readers who favor domestic dramas.

The story takes place in San Francisco, circa 1953, but not in the part of town books and films are usually set in. Rather, it mostly takes place in the Sunset, a neighborhood in the Western part of the city which rolls down from the hills to the Pacific (and one I once lived in, just off the same street as the protagonists). Narrated by Pearlie, the story tells of her childhood crush Holland, and her later marriage to him following WWII. It's clear from the start (and various oblique hints throughout) that there are some deep secrets in this story, both in terms of Holland, and in terms of the story itself. The first section ends with an attempt on the author's part to surprise the reader, although I suspect most (like myself) will have seen through the pretense quite early on.

The next section delves into Pearlie's attempt to understand Holland, who suffered some kind of unspecified injury during the war, leaving him with a "weak" heart. Her attempt to understand her husband is both aided and confused by the reappearance of his former boss, and this man's easy insertion into their life as their only friend. This builds up to a narrative revelation which pretty much every reader will have guessed long before Pearlie is let in on the secret. The final third of the book revolves around the choices that lie before Pearlie now that she has learned this particular secret, and readers will be silently willing her to make one choice or another as she agonizes over the best course of action.

Although it is tackling large themes, such as the nature of love, and what it means to be married, the novel is ultimately a period domestic melodrama, and may prove to be somewhat too cloying for some readers. However I tend to be pretty sensitive to that kind of stuff, and Greer's sharp and simple prose largely avoids any gooey sentiment. Pearlie and Holland's story is greatly helped by the keen attention to period, as the effects of the war linger on, and America is just moving into a period of prosperity and social change. Some of Greer's revelations aren't the shocks he perhaps intends them to be, but the story remains compelling nonetheless. It's a nice book for book clubs, as the thematic issues (love, marriage, race, class, etc.) are ripe for discussion.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I agree with those who found this novel lacking in depth and content. The central thesis of the novel just doesn't hold: how can Pearlie believe Buzz, with his story about an affair he had with her husband Holland, and never even mention it to him? I kept thinking thoughout the book that the author was going to make it clear that Buzz was creating this 'story' for some other purpose...but he doesn't; nor does anything ever happen between him and Holland. Pearlie never once reflects on her thoughts or feelings about homosexuality, and this is 1953!...but she does believe that her husband loved another person...improbable! I can believe that she would not speak about homosexuality, but she would certainly think about it, and the author does not reveal that in any way. Unlike the fantastic film Far From Heaven, attitudes about homosexuality, race and gender, are not explored from the cultural context of San Francisco 1953. Instead, Pearlie ponders the life of Ethel Rosenberg, a person quite unlike herself and her current life situation. I agree with the reader who noted that the author was unable to evoke a female, or black female character.
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57 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I am surprised to see so many novelists of distinction and readers as well declaring this novel a triumph. In my view, it's far from that, not even being very good, and this for a number of reasons. First of all, the surprising plot twists which occur far too often throughout the slim book violate the reasonable principle that experienced readers will prefer even impossible events if they've been made probable over merely possible events, if an author leaves such as just wildly improbable. Greer seems to have thought his readers resembled kids at an old Saturday matinee featuring serials rife with weekly cliff-hangers. Every 10 pages or so, I was tempted to bellow forth, "Yeah, right!"

The narrative of the book is a pastiche, consisting of borrowings from the film "Far From Heaven" as well as from two other fairly recent films having to do with the purchase of someone else's spouse. Greer, unlike Shakespeare, unfortunately does not improve upon his sources. From books, the author is heavily indebted to Stendhal's theories of crystalization in love and Proust's far more profound and moving treatments of time and erotic obsession. Perhaps most disappointing is Greer's inclination to present platitudes as fresh truths. Thus, the notion that no one can fully and finally understand anyone else, much less himself - Greer's philosophy here - is presented as tantamount to the discovery of the wheel. Unfortunately, this set of ideas, the basis by the way of the strikingly innovative dramaturgy in "Hamlet," emerges in this novel not as hard won truth but rather as easy cliche.

The three main characters, Pearlie, Buzz, and Holland, are all lacking in sufficient interiority to hold one's attention. As "vessels of consciousness," their vision is extraordinarily restricted. The central figure, Pearlie, I'd say, makes the rustic Emma Bovary by comparison appear a universal genius. The child Sonny, being sometimes bratty, and the dog Lyle, being frequently goofy, have between them more believable "life" than any of the three principals. I think the charater limitation here is equivalent to the one seen by Francis Bacon when he declared "It is a poore Center of a Man's Actions, Himselfe." For all their chatter about war, of not belonging, and of 50's life in America, the principals have no fully convincing interests outside themselves and their own small, little world.

Stylistically, the novel is a mixed bag. The sentences, as one might expect, are generally well-wrought, and they're the basis of my 2 stars. But even here, there are difficulties. Greer seems to strain after pseudo-poetic effect, and on occasion tumbles into the laughable. He writes, "the moon was rising quickly and had found a flock of clouds hidden in the sky and touched them all into vertebrated streaks of light. Everywhere the stars struggled to show themselves." If there exists in contemporary writing a better example of the long discredited "pathetic fallacy," I'm unaware of it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The Story of a Marriage examines the marriage of Pearlie and Holland Cook during a brief period of time in 1953. In many ways, the Cook's marriage is superficially ordinary, but, like most marriages, it's internally complicated and weighty: "like those giant heavenly bodies invisible to the human eye, it can only be charted by its gravity, its pull on everything around it."

This quiet novel is full of self-awareness. The story is remarkably controlled, each detail playing a critical role. In precise and well-crafted prose, Greer reveals the flaws in our assumptions. Just when you think you've got the story figured out, Greer shows just how wrong you've been all along. The book begins with an appropriate warning:

"We think we know the ones we love. Our husbands, our wives. We know them--we are them, sometimes .... But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know. We try to get past it to the original, but we never can."

The Story of a Marriage is about the things we do to construct our view of another person. Ultimately, the person we think we know is nothing more than our own mind's reconciliation of the mysteries that make up another being:

"[A] lover exists only in fragments, a dozen or so if the romance is new, a thousand if we've married him, and out of those fragments our heart constructs an entire person. What we each create, since whatever is missing is filled in by our imagination, is the person we wish him to be."

The Story of a Marriage is a masterpiece of the nuances of marriage. It's poignant and beautiful and well worth reading.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 4, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This was an odd book for me in that it's written with such delicate and intimate beauty,and yet I felt myself emotionally detached from the proceedings. Early on there are some revelations that literally caused me to take in a sharp intake of breath at their cleverness, and yet as the story unfolded, Pearlie's musings on love and the choices we make while beautifully written never completely got me invested. Greer is an interesting writer and between this and his previous book,'The Confessions of Max Tivoli', proves he has an inventive imagination. I just wish I could've connected a bit more.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
The Story of a Marriage is a well-plotted novel about a relationship triangle, that of a woman, her husband, and his friend. The woman, Pearlie Ash, meets a childhood sweetheart named Holland Cook one day on a beach after WWII. In spite of discouragement from his aunts (who are actually his cousins), she chooses to marry him. Their son, Sonny, contracts polio at age three. Four years into their marriage, Buzz Drumer, a man who knew Holland during the war, shows up. Over time, he reveals details of his secretive past and his relationship with her husband. Thirty years later, two of the three reunite. Although there seemed to be a statistically high number of conscientious objectors (of which I am not a fan) in a story with so few characters and pages, that fact is overshadowed by the originality of the story. Author Andrew Sean Greer does a fabulous job at plotting, and especially in at his perfectly timed revelations.

Also good: The Three Junes by Julia Glass, The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Close Range by Annie Proulx.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Pearlie has a taste for aphoristic musings. "We think we know the ones we love," she writes. "But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know." These quasi-Proustian observations and their associated metaphors are brought to a state of high polish. But Greer's plotting doesn't always live up to Pearlie's commentary. A side-story involving a spirited white girl who's secretly engaged to a prejudiced soda-jerk is tacked on to the main plot in a way that's both implausible and underexplained. Pearlie's sympathy for Buzz blooms remarkably quickly, and there's an excess of busily symbolic detail. If the characters watch a movie, overhear a TV show or read the words printed on a paper bag, what they come across will be eerily reflective of their predicament.
Most of all, Greer's first big narrative bombshell doesn't detonate with the force that he seems to be hoping for. After all the wary looks from white neighbors, references to the status of the "colored" population, mentions of Pearlie's "community" and descriptions of visits to segregated lunchrooms, only very inattentive readers will be startled to learn that the Cooks are black; some might even wonder why Pearlie has tried to play such a heavy-handed trick. The surprises in what follows are managed more skillfully, and Greer has clearly done his homework on the time he's depicting. But the artificial, slightly tinny resonance never goes away.
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21 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
First of all. I very much appreciate the author and his abundent talent, which is why I bought the book. I even disregarded my intuition that a favorable New York Times review generally means a book is over-rated at best and more probably awful. Well, this one is pretty close to awful. For whatever reason, Greer decided to use (and I do mean use) a female personna as the vehicle for some sort of theory about love. Well, he did himself no favors because Pearlie does not resonate as a woman, let alone a black woman and for sure the attempt to raise the Rosenbergs (particularly Ethel) to some sort of martyrdom fails precisely because that was not a theme that resonates with blacks. All in all, next time Greer publishes, I will look but not buy until I have satisfied myself that he has something to say worth reading rather than self-indulgent tripe that presumes a black woman would sell her beloved for filthy lucre. Oh boy, not very much there "there" for me.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The author tries to puff up his thin plotline with pretentious prose, leaving me, as a reader, with characters so poorly developed I failed in my attempts to care about them. The idea that a wife of some years would accept the word of a total stranger that she essentially should sell her husband to him, a self-described former lover, and that this same wife would never in a six month period ask her husband if he favors the "deal", or if he had anything more than an employer/employee relationship with the stranger, is preposterous. Also beyond belief is the plotline that has a young man crippled with polio, requiring braces to walk, having to flee to Canada to avoid the Vietnam war draft. Another foundational problem with the major plotline concerns the husband's failure to claim conscientious objector status during WWII when his draft board officer asked him if he were a CO and thus gives him the opportunity to avoid military service. A bright spot: the plus-perfect English spoken by all the female characters is a tribute to the San Francisco public school system, since none of them set foot in an institution of higher learning.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2009
Format: Paperback
Pearlie lives live much like any other housewife in Northern California in the early 1950s. She dutifully works to keep the house clean, keeps her polio striken son as healthy and vibrant as possible and her husband happy and calm (so as not to aggrevate his heart condition. All seems well, or at least liveable (like her husband's affair) until a knock at the door turns Pearlie's world upside down.

A white man's startling revelation about his relationship with Pearlie's husband during their wartime stay in the hospital should tear her world apart; instead the revelation opens doors she never knew existed.

Pearlie and the man strike up an unlikely friendship and, ultimately, he delivers stunning plans for her husband, plans that will have huge ramifications for Pearlie and her son. Now Pearlie must scramble to put a price on love, a figure high enough to secure a happy future for herself and her son.

Greer's language turns what might be an interesting story into a compelling, must-read book. Hailed by authors and critics alike, The Story of a Marriage, will stick with the reader for a long time.
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